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‘Dealing with my disability helped inspire my industrial career’

Written by: Anita Cawley
Published on: 13 Nov 2018

Anita Cawley

Anita Cawley explains what lessons she learnt by tackling the challenges posed by her physical disability, and how she became operations director of a medicines research provider and chair of Pharmacist Support 

Being born with a physical disability that affected my mobility, I was around healthcare professionals from an early age, including orthopaedic consultants, nurses, and doctors. I learnt about the benefits and side-effects of medicines from those I was taking.

My early education, in a school for physically disabled children, taught me to treat everyone as an individual and focus on the positives, dream big and push yourself. Teachers inspired me by making each child feel they had something to offer, regardless of their disability. Now, every day I look for what I can do to help someone else be the best they can be.

From the age of 12, I set my sights on pharmacy as my future career – being a pharmacist working in the community, as well as in the pharmaceutical industry. I wanted to be part of a team that brought new medicines to patients, and to be able to explain how they worked and what a patient might experience.

Using connections

I used my medical connections to get introductions into the world of pharmacy, from chief pharmacists, to heads of pharmacy schools, to community pharmacists. These people became my supporters and mentors. The journey wasn’t easy – at the time the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain had major reservations about how my physical limitations might have impaired my ability to register and practice. I met the head of the school of pharmacy at my university in Liverpool, Vernon Walters. His support, coupled with that of my local Boots pharmacist, encouraged me on my journey.

In the final year of my degree in 1991, I secured a GlaxoSmithKline pre-registration placement, which involved work as an industrial pharmacist and in hospital pharmacy. Beginning with a job in Manchester for the Paris-based biopharmaceutical company Sanofi, I went on to work for pharmaceutical companies across disciplines including clinical trials, regulation, pharmacovigilance, and clinical operations. I also completed a Master’s degree in pharmacovigilance.

I made a move into community pharmacy as a manager at a Boots branch in Derby in 2001, after the birth of my son, but I was drawn back to industry a year later when I joined the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. I spent almost 11 happy years there, working in clinical operations, drug safety, and information management.

A career change after redundancy

However, in 2012 a company reorganisation meant I was made redundant. By this time, my physical disability was giving me greater challenges. I took a break to reassess, and then decided to join Pharmacist Support as a trustee, to give back to the profession that had been my passion for 20 years. Pharmacist Support is an independent charity that provides a range of free and confidential services to those in the profession confronted by difficult circumstances. Every day, we help people facing life-changing challenges.

Thrust into a leadership role

At first I was uncertain what I had to bring to the table in an unfamiliar charity sector. Nevertheless, I soon found my feet.  Within three years I was asked to stand as vice-chair. I then found myself thrust into the role of chair following the untimely death of Professor Peter Noyce.

Around the same time, as I stepped into the role as Pharmacist Support chair, a colleague from AstraZeneca asked me to support his new business venture in operations. In 2014, Aptus Clinical was born. Based in Cheshire, it specialises in providing biotech companies with seasoned drug development expertise and help bring their products to market. It has grown to a team of 48 people in just four years.

The pharmacy profession today is a very different one to the one I joined 25 years ago, but the best piece of advice I would give is to find where your skills can make the biggest difference to patients, and take every opportunity to make that difference.

Anita Cawley is Aptus Clinical operations director and Pharmacist Support chair